Quick Takes: Film Festival Runoff

It’s Film Festival Season right now.  If you’re on the level of industry press who get flown around the world, that means you’re dragging your corpse from screening to screening at high-profile fests like Venice, Tribeca, and TIFF, then pretending in your late-night hotel room tweets & podcasts that you’re fully awake and spring-loaded with the hottest takes as you drift into a brief nap before the cycle starts again.  And if you’re an amateur movie nerd like me, you’re taking those delirious dispatches from Film Industry Hell as holy gospel, making notes on what movies to look out for much, much further down the distribution path.  The problem is a lot of the smaller, weirder titles highlighted in those reports from the ground can take years to reach local screens, if they ever arrive at all.  After years of attentive podcast listening, I have serial killer conspiracy theorist notebooks full of scribbled-down titles of movies that functionally do not exist, hoping that something as wonderfully bizarre as an Aline, a Double Lover, or a Diamantino might eventually make it my way.  It often pays off!  But it’s a madman’s hobby.

I was thinking about this private film fest ritual in recent weeks, listening to festival recaps on podcasts like Film Comment & The Last Thing I Saw while still searching for titles they covered years ago on my weekly trips to JustWatch.  And I happened to catch a few of those festival runoff titles in recent weeks: low-budget movies that were briefly highlighted in their festival runs while higher-profile awards seekers premiered in much brighter spotlights at the same venues.  I’ve covered local fests like NOFF & Overlook for Swampflix before, but I can’t afford to be the first online with the freshest takes on titles out of Sundance & Telluride that will be widely available in the nation’s multiplexes just a few weeks later.  Instead, here are a few quick reviews of smaller-profile indies that premiered at festivals long ago, but just recently got wide distribution.

The Silent Twins

The newest film from The Lure‘s Agnieszka Smoczyńska has enjoyed the quickest turnaround of the festival titles highlighted here, premiering at Cannes just this Spring.  That kind of rushed-to-market release usually means a film is vying for Awards Season prestige, but The Silent Twins is too thorny & too fanciful to be mistaken for a crowd-pleaser.  Its titular Welsh sisters, June & Jennifer Gibbons, were mutually obsessed to the point of total reclusiveness in real life, refusing to communicate to anyone but each other in their own hushed, made-up language.  Smoczyńska uses their personal diaries & surviving scraps of creative writing as inspiration to imagine what their inner world might have been like, since there isn’t much to depict in their near-catatonic external life as the only Black family in their Welsh neighborhood.  From the outside looking in, this is a grim, by-the-numbers historical drama.  On the inside, it’s a rich fantasyscape that often takes the shape of a grotesque stop-motion music video.

There’s a bizarre mismatch between auteur & genre here, like watching Lynne Ramsay direct Oscar Bait.  Smoczyńska is unlikely to ever make another killer-mermaid disco musical, though, so it’s at least cool to see her directing high-profile work with a hint of commercial appeal.  The (mostly British) audience who know the Gibbons sisters as a from-the-headlines human interest story have been frustrated with the film’s self-indulgent style and historical inaccuracies, while fans of The Lure will be frustrated that it doesn’t break from reality more frequently & more harshly.  Neither side of that divide can walk away 100% happy, but there’s some great tension between its Wikipedia Biopic genre template and its insular, high-style dream logic. And who knows, maybe it’ll make waves at the BAFTAs before it otherwise fades away forever.

Tahara

The road to wide distribution has been much longer for the microbudget coming-of-age drama Tahara, which first premiered at Slamdance, TIFF, and Outfest way back in 2020.  This is, of course, the 77min, darkly humorous queer meltdown drama in which Rachel Sennott makes bagels and makes out as an agent of chaos at a Jewish funeral.  No, not that one, the other one.  Tahara was shot in the moment between when Shiva Baby was just a proof-of-concept short film and when its feature-length version became a critical darling at SXSW & TIFF, earning a spot on many publication’s Best of 2021 lists.  Tahara can only suffer by comparison, then, since it’s not as searingly intense nor as robustly funded as Shiva Baby, which puts Sennott’s electric screen presence to much more attention-grabbing use.  By the time Bodies Bodies Bodies hit theaters this summer, though, she proved herself to be a legitimate, once-in-a-generation star, which makes the first feature she shot worth a look no matter how redundant its surface details seem.

Oddly enough, Tahara shares more in common with The Silent Twins, stylistically, than it does with Shiva Baby.  Sennott stars alongside Madeline Grey DeFreece as a pair of high school BFFs who are so mutually obsessed that they can almost communicate telepathically, chatting in a private body language that director Olivia Pearce helpfully translates into on-screen subtitles.  When Sennott’s bratty partygirl hedonist pressures her more bookish bestie into making out for LOLs at a classmate’s funeral, her friend catches feelings and the film slips into Silent Twins-style stop-motion fantasy.  However, their interpersonal drama is extremely low stakes in comparison to Smoczyńska’s film, or even Shiva Baby, really.  Mostly, this is a charming indie comedy that scores a lot of nervous laughter off the social tension of Sennott causing self-involved havoc in a buttoned-up funeral setting.  It’s the exact kind of movie you’d expect to see at a local film fest and hold onto as an “I knew them when” badge of honor as the breakout performer moved onto bigger & better things.  Only, Sennott’s rise to fame was much quicker than the movie’s roll-out.

Mother Schmuckers

It’s shameful to admit, but the film from this batch I was most looking forward to was the one most devoid of best-of-the-year potential, awards season prestige, or even basic artistic merit.  The Belgian buddy comedy Mother Schmuckers premiered at Sundance in 2021 to total critical indifference, despite its most juvenile efforts to provoke.  The 70min novelty gross-out revisits the tipping point when the Farrelley Brothers converted the John Waters gross-out comedy into mainstream crowd pleasers, choosing instead to upset & offend.  It’s Dumb & Dumber for the Pink Flamingos crowd, both a revolting abomination and a revolting delight.  I can’t recommend it in good conscience, but I also won’t pretend I didn’t enjoy it.

Real-life brothers Harpo and Lenny Guit star as fictional idiot brothers who torment anyone & everyone unfortunate enough to know them, as if they were performing hype house YouTube pranks that no one is around to film.  Mother Schmuckers opens with the titular schmucks cooking feces in the family frying pan, then offering it to their incensed mother until she pukes onto the camera lens, providing a slimy green backdrop for the title card.  Kicked out of the house and left in charge of the most valued member of the family—their mother’s dog—they get into endless bad-taste shenanigans, ranging from murder to bestiality to necrophiliac prostitution . . . all while searching for an easy meal.  The film indulges in a little visual flair to lighten up the severity of these stunts, dabbling in color blind dog-cam POV, vintage picture-in-picture inserts, and Jackass-style found footage camcorder textures.  This is not another fantasy-prone-siblings-shunned-by-a-cruel-world heartbreaker like The Silent Twins, though.  It’s trash; it knows it’s trash; and any festival programming it would’ve been smart to bury it in the midnight slot where only the most delirious trash scavengers would stumble across it.  All that said, I laughed a lot while watching it, which I believe qualifies it as a success.  I’m also in total amazement that it scored American distribution, given how many higher-minded films never make it past the festival circuit.

-Brandon Ledet

Bonus Features: All Cheerleaders Die (2013)

Our current Movie of the Month, 2013’s All Cheerleaders Die, is a delightfully vapid, shockingly cruel horror comedy about undead cheerleaders seeking supernatural revenge on their high school’s misogynist football team.  It opens with faux-documentary footage that anthropologizes the cheerleaders’ social rituals as queen-bitch rulers of the school.  Our outsider-goth protagonist intends to infiltrate, expose, and tear down the institution of popular-girl supremacy by joining the squad and sabotaging them from the inside.  Only, once she makes the squad she finds it to be an unexpected, heartfelt bonding experience . . . especially after they’re murdered by the school’s meathead jocks, then rise from the grave to avenge their own deaths.

All Cheerleaders Die is a tonally chaotic mix of campy bitch-sesh dialogue, disturbing jabs of misogynist violence, high-femme lesbianism, vintage zombie gore, and supernatural goofballery involving magic crystals & spells.  Its shocking ultraviolence strikes a sharp contrast against the bubbly cheer squad social setting, touching on a long tradition of playfully violent cheerleader thrillers like Jennifer’s Body, Sugar & Spice, Satan’s Cheerleaders, and the list goes on.  To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more bubbly, morbid films about the deadly art of high school cheerleading.

Cheerleader Camp (1988)

All Cheerleaders Die’s greatest strength is its more-is-more ethos. It’s a shamelessly silly film that’s fearless about piling on more supernatural mayhem than it can possibly manage atop what easily could have been a simple undead-cheerleaders premise.  You can find more of that over-extended hot-mess novelty in the 80s sex-comedy slasher Cheerleader CampCheerleader Camp relocates the Porky’s sex comedy to Camp Crystal Lake, breaking up the usual rhythms of the summer camp slasher with frat boy gags involving locker room snooping & old-biddy crossdressing in an endless desperation to see cheerleaders topless.  Then, it goes the extra mile with some cheap-o surrealism in sub-Elm Street nightmare sequences starring various school mascots and razor-sharp pom-poms.  Like All Cheerleaders Die, it’s light-hearted, boneheaded novelty trash that reaches a kind of vapid transcendence in its overly complicated genre mashups.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

If the meathead Reaganite antics of Cheerleader Camp are an instant turn-off, you’re much likelier to feel at home with the bubbly, Valley Girl cuteness of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  The original Buffy film is basically Clueless before Clueless, if Clueless were a Hammer Horror.  Kristy Swanson stars as a mallrat cheerleader who’s recruited for her true calling as the modern Van Helsing.  Suddenly her priorities shift from determining which shopping mall multiplex has the best popcorn to learning how to drive stakes into vampires’ hearts without breaking a nail.  I never fully understood the appeal of the Buffy TV show, but the movie was a childhood favorite and remains a total delight.  It’s the exact kind of giggly, high-femme horror comedy that would be a hit at the same baby-goth sleepovers as All Cheerleaders Die, if either film got the respect they both deserve.

The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1993)

All Cheerleaders Die may belong to a tradition of theatrically released cheerleader horrors, but most deadly cheerleader movies are made-for-TV.  Lifetime, in particular, is overflowing with titles like Cheer for Your Life, Deadly Cheers, Dying to Be a Cheerleader, Death of a Cheerleader, and Pom Poms and Payback, releasing cheerleader thrillers with the same rate most channels release made-for-TV Christmas movies.  The very best straight-to-TV cheerleader thriller I’ve ever seen was made for HBO in the 90s, though.

The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom is the scrappy little sister of headlines-riffing black comedies like Serial Mom, To Die For, and Drop Dead Gorgeous.  It can’t quite compete with those 5-star classics, but Holly Hunter is deliciously vicious as the titular cheerleader-murdering mom.  She tears through small-town rubes like an overgrown child pageant queen gone feral.  It’s the exact kind of novelty I was looking for when I watched the much more mundane Denise Richards Lifetime thrillers Killer Cheer Mom and The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders earlier this year, so I’m recommending it as the only title you need to understand the artistry of the made-for-TV cheerleader thriller sungenre.

-Brandon Ledet

Podcast #169: Willow (1988) & Fairy Tales

Welcome to Episode #169 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, Britnee, and Hanna discuss a grab bag of fantasy films & fairy tales, starting with the 1988 Warwick Davis star-maker Willow.

00:00 Welcome

02:25 Vengeance (2022)
09:20 Barbarian (2022)
12:50 Seconds (1966)
17:05 Ghost in the Shell (1995)

22:05 Willow (1988)
44:30 The Singing Ringing Tree (1957)
1:02:17 Gretel & Hansel (2020)
1:17:17 Belle (2022)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

The Search for This Year’s Malignant

When reviewing James Wan’s twisty crowd-baffler Malignant, I contextualized it as 2021’s The Empty Man: a seemingly well-behaved mainstream horror that takes some wild creative stabs in its go-for-broke third act, earning instant cult prestige as a “hidden gem” despite its robust budget, thanks to the dysfunction of COVID-era film distribution.  A year later, it’s clear that Malignant has fully eclipsed its 2020 equivalent.  The Empty Man no longer exists at all in the public consciousness (a thematically appropriate fate for the film, at least), while Gabriel of Malignant fame is the closest we’ve gotten to crowning a modern horror icon since Bill Skarsgård dragged up clown make-up in chapter one of IT.  It’s not enough that horror nerds & Twitter bots were sharing one-year anniversary posts commemorating Gabriel’s jail-cell debut in Malignant; they’re also now searching for “this year’s Malignant” in other films.  Within weeks of each other, I saw two different 2022 horrors described as “this year’s Malignant,” which is further confirmation that Gabriel still lurks in the backs of people’s minds (har, har).  Having now seen both contenders for the prestigious title of “this year’s Malignant,” I do think there’s a clear winner in the pair, even if I have lingering questions about what that honorific even means.

Orphan: First Kill was the first movie I saw described as “this year’s Malignant” online. It turned out to be a premature declaration.  Having to live up to both the shock & awe of Gabriel’s reveal and the perverse discomforts of the original Orphan‘s third-act meltdown is too much pressure for this kind of straight-to-streaming schlock, which is ultimately too cheap & too subdued to amount to much of anything.  The workman director behind The Boy & Brahms: The Boy II just can’t match the stylishness or trashiness of a James Wan or a Jaume Collet-Serra. William Brent Bell works in a muted Lifetime color palette & melodramatic register that First Kill never really breaks free from.  Worse yet, the film’s “shocking” twist is telegraphed all over Julia Styles’s face within the first few scenes, which takes it out of contention for “this year’s Malignant” before it even gets cooking.  Thankfully, Orphan: First Kill doesn’t save its twist for the third act, allowing Styles to square off against little orphan Esther on her own bonkers terms well before the end credits.  The second half of First Kill is some deliciously absurd, post-Lifetime domestic horror, and it never stops being bizarre to watch a now-adult Isabelle Fuhrman reprise her role as the forever-young Esther, Colin Robinson style.  Since the “first” in the title is super misleading, as Esther has already killed before this movie starts, I’d gladly watch Fuhrman return for another, earlier prequel as the same loveable, pint-sized killer in 13 years.  Orphan: First Kill is a delightful, slight horror novelty.  It’s just not this year’s Malignant.

The case for Zach Cregger’s debut feature Barbarian is much stronger.  While Orphan: First Kill suffers the disadvantage of having to out-twist its already plenty twisty predecessor, Barbarian is coming in fresh as a new work with no expectations hanging over the audience.  All most critics will say about the film is that it’s a fun ride and it’s best to go in completely unspoiled, which certainly sounds very Malignanty to me.  I won’t touch the details of the plot out of respect for maintaining that mystique.  All I can say, then, is that it’s a very fragmented work, one that makes total sense in the context of Cregger’s sketch comedy background.  Like with all sketch comedy, not every segment exploring its Evil Airbnb Subdungeon setting is entirely successful (with Justin Long’s storyline being a particular mood-killer).  Overall, though, it’s some fun, fucked-up Discomfort Horror that Malignantizes the post-torture porn cruelty of titles like Don’t Breathe into something new & exciting.  It also has the best end-credits needle drop since You Were Never Really Here, leaving the audience in a perversely upbeat mood despite the Hell we just squirmed through.  It’s not a great film but, frankly, neither was Malignant.  The important thing is that it’s eccentric enough in its twists & turns to land a few “what-the-fuck” jaw-drops as its cursed Airbnb reveals all its gnarly secrets.  That’s what makes it this year’s Malignant, a “hidden gem” of a mainstream horror that’s pulling typically non-adventurous audiences into some deeply fucked up, perversely playful subdungeons. It’s incredibly cool that something this bizarre was #1 at the box office its opening weekend.

As for next year’s Malignant?  My hope is that by then something so freshly upsetting & bizarre will make this honorific obsolete, and we won’t have to hand out the award ever again.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer, Brandon, and Alli discuss Adrian Lyne’s post-Vietnam War psych horror Jacob’s Ladder (1990).

00:00 Welcome

02:36 Power of the Dog (2021)
06:00 Vampires (1998)
07:30 The Fog (1980)
11:35 Funny Pages (2022)
16:20 The Hobbit: A Long-Expected Autopsy (2018)
19:10 Victoria & Abdul (2017)
22:45 Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022)
25:50 A Serious Man (2009)

33:30 Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Physical Media Mafia

When Warner Brothers cancelled the release of their upcoming Batgirl film in post-production and then started scraping HBO Max exclusives from their servers last month, there was a lot of “I told you so” gloating from physical media collectors online.  I have a lot of admiration for the physical media freaks out there with endless towers of hideous plastic snap cases lining their home library walls.  Even if most of those movies just collect dust, unwatched, there’s an archivist’s spirit to that kind of obsessive collecting & cataloging that really does feel like an act of defiance, even if a consumerist one.  Charging monthly subscription fees for behind-a-paywall access to movies & TV shows that can be wiped from servers at any minute is a truly anti-democratic, anti-art distribution model, and I’ve got a lot of respect for collectors who are building personal libraries to combat that exclusivity & intangibility.  At the same time, I do not understand how most amateurs can afford the hobby. 

I heavily rely on physical media to keep my movie-nerd lifestyle affordable, but not in the way the loudest, proudest collectors do.  If I dropped $30 to $50 on every new Blu-ray release I wanted to own, it would financially devastate me in a matter of weeks, especially in our current boom of genre-focused boutique labels specifically designed to drain my bank account in particular.  Instead, I regularly borrow DVDs of new releases (and podcast homework titles) from the New Orleans Public Library, which is a surprisingly dependable, easily accessible resource.  When I do collect movies, I’m usually scooping up a handful of DVDs at a local thrift store, watching them once, and selling them back to a second-hand media shop for store credit so I can “buy” something I actually want to own.  This ritual isn’t in defiance of the streaming service subscription model, exactly.  It’s more in defiance of our failing local infrastructure.  I can power my home with solar panels during a hurricane outage, but I can’t power the regional cable company, which sometimes means I’m bored with no internet connection for a full week and only my thrift store DVDs to keep me entertained — let’s say about once a year, somewhere in the June to November range.

There doesn’t even need to be a hurricane for that stockpile to come in handy.  I arrived home from a sweaty bus ride a few weeks ago to an unexplained neighborhood-wide internet outage, courtesy of Cox Cable.  One cancelled podcast recording later, I had nothing to keep myself occupied with except the thrift store DVDs collecting dust in my watchpile.  So, I scraped together the best double feature I could out of that meager library, settling on a pair of quirky crime pictures about women at the outskirts of the Long Island mafia.  I doubt many film programmers have paired Jonathan Demme’s beloved 1988 crime-world comedy Married to the Mob with anonymous workman director David Anspaugh’s 2002 restaurant melodrama WiseGirls, mostly because I doubt many people even know that WiseGirls exists.  It’s the exact kind of movie you find on a Goodwill DVD shelf and then watch when the internet’s down on an otherwise excruciatingly boring evening.  And in that context, it ain’t half bad.

WiseGirls stars Mira Sorvino as a med school dropout who takes a minimum-wage job waiting tables at a mobster’s restaurant in her hometown on Long Island.  There, she finds life-changing friendship with her two fellow waitresses, played by the much more charismatic Mariah Carey & Melora Walters.  It’s a bizarrely serious drama, especially given how fun & flirty the marketing makes it appear.  The women deal with the same sexist bullshit most waitresses suffer — pinched, groped, berated, infantilized, and slapped while they’re just trying to run a plate of spaghetti to table 7.  Working for a mobster restauranteur adds some extra challenges on top of that industry-standard misogyny, though, like so much freshly grated parmesan.  Sorvino cleans bullet wounds, dodges assassination, and is pressured into distributing heroin via tin-foil takeout swans.  It’s perfectly cromulent for a drama that premiered at Sundance then went straight to Cinemax. The only real surprise is how very great Mariah Carey is in this otherwise very mediocre movie.  Rival chanteuse JLo had to wait 16 years for Hustlers to complete her post-Gigli redemption arc. In contrast, Carey redeemed herself with an effortlessly charming, entirely naturalistic performance just one year after Glitter.  It’s a shame not enough people saw WiseGirls to come to her defense while those wounds were still fresh, and most of the press wasn’t about her performance but instead focused on a behind-the-scenes fight where she hurled a saltshaker at Mira Sorvino’s head.  Given how much Glitter lingers as a time-capsule punchline of the early aughts, maybe WiseGirls would’ve had more of a lasting impact if Carey was a disaster in it.  Too bad she’s really good.

The cast for Demme’s Married to the Mob is in no need of redemption or reclamation.  Michelle Pfeiffer stars the reluctant wife of a mobster, who uses her husband’s unexpected assassination as an excuse to flee the Family.  Pfeiffer is joined by the likes of Alec Baldwin, Joan Cusack, Oliver Platt, Matthew Modine, and Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis in a full-charm offensive.  Behind the camera, Demme is joined by regular collaborators like cinematographer Tak Fujimoto & musician David Byrne, with Colleen Atwood on costumes and a cool-kid soundtrack featuring artists like The Pixies, The Feelies, Deb Harry, The Tom Tom Club, New Order, and Sinéad O’Connor while they were all still at their hippest.  All the prestige & pedigree missing from WiseGirls is overflowing out of this mainstream mafia comedy, which is somehow both much sillier and much more violent.  It feels like the exact ideal people are nostalgic for when they complain that mainstream comedies have lost their sense of visual style, punching up its goofball humor with vivid colors & complex camera moves. I can’t quite match the soaring enthusiasm of its loudest champions, but it looks great, everyone’s super charming in it, and Pfeiffer gets to wear cute outfits, which is more than enough for this type of broad comedy.  Its competency & sterling reputation can make it less interesting to pick apart than the aughts-era relic WiseGirls, but it’s undeniably the more thoughtful, better crafted movie about women who have to cater to & skirt around the macho mobsters of Long Island.  It’s also cute that the better respected movie of that pair is the one that features Modine & Platt as cops who dress in a series of Gene Parmesan-level disguises to spy on the mob.

You’d think that after Lorraine Bracco & Debi Mazar were so electrically entertaining in GoodFellas, these women-centered mafia stories would be less of a novelty, but WiseGirls & Married to the Mob still feel relatively rare in their choice of POV.  It was double bill that came together through happenstance, but they had plenty in common, including restaurants’ function as a meat market for mobster mistresses and cocktails tossed in those mobsters’ faces when they cross a line.  My solidarity with true physical media collectors is another happenstance.  While proper collectors are preparing for a pop media apocalypse where personal libraries and torrent sites will be the only way to access most films, I’m just trying to get by on a limited budget in a region with a crumbling infrastructure.  I’m mostly getting my DVDs & Blu-rays through libraries & thrift stores, not online distribution hubs like Amazon or Diabolik, but I very much appreciate that there are true collectors out there saving cinema & footing the bill.  I am but the WiseGirls to their Married to the Mob.

-Brandon Ledet

Podcast #168: Scream (1996 – 2022)

Welcome to Episode #168 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Brandon, James, and Britnee ease into spooky season with a discussion of the meta-slasher franchise Scream.

00:00 Welcome
00:56 Breathless (1983)
05:57 Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1981)
09:50 The Burning Bed (1980)
12:45 Orphan: First Kill (2022)

16:08 Scream (1996)
33:13 Screams 2 – 5 (1997 – 2022)

You can stay up to date with our podcast by subscribing on SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

– The Podcast Crew

Movie of the Month: All Cheerleaders Die (2013)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before, and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Alli, Boomer, and Britnee watch All Cheerleaders Die (2013).

Brandon: I’m a little baffled by the lack of a visible cult following for Lucky McKee’s 2013 zom-com All Cheerleaders Die – a delightfully vapid, shockingly cruel horror comedy about undead cheerleaders seeking supernatural revenge on their high school’s misogynist football team.  Its reputation and promotional materials make it look like an unwatchable embarrassment only fit for gore-hungry teens who haven’t yet seen the superior titles of the teen-girl-revenge horror cannon.  And yes, the biggest hurdle All Cheerleaders Die has to clear on its path to cult-classic status is that it’s dead last on the list of films of its ilk worth prioritizing before you get to it: Heathers, Drop Dead Gorgeous, The Craft, Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, Jawbreaker, Sugar & Spice, Buffy, Teeth, Carrie, etc., etc., etc.  That’s great company to be in no matter where you fall in the high school clique hierarchy, though, and I’d love to see this overlooked, over-the-top trash gem cited among those better-respected peers more often.

All Cheerleaders Die starts with faux-documentary footage that anthropologizes the high school cheerleaders’ social rituals as queen-bitch rulers of the school.  Our outsider-goth protagonist intends to infiltrate, expose, and tear down the institution of popular-girl supremacy by joining the squad and sabotaging them from the inside.  Only, once she makes the team, she finds it to be an unexpected heartfelt bonding experience . . . especially after they’re all murdered by the school’s meathead jocks, then collectively rise from the grave to avenge their own deaths.  The film is a tonally chaotic mix of campy bitch-sesh dialogue, disturbing jabs of misogynist violence, high-femme lesbianism, vintage zombie gore, and supernatural goofballery involving magic crystals & spells – all lightyears away from the grimy digicam footage that establishes its early tone.  It’s a riot.

It’s been nearly a decade since All Cheerleaders Die floundered in theaters, and it’s yet to leave much of a cultural footprint among the genre nerds & edgy teens who’d likely love it.  In my ideal world, it would be leaving blood stains on midnight movie screens & sleepover TV sets on a weekly basis.  So, how did it go over with the rest of the Swampflix crew?  Does the cult start here, or did y’all find it to be just as terrible as its marketing suggested? 

Alli: I’m overall feeling pretty lukewarm about it. I don’t think it’s an unwatchable wreck, but it doesn’t quite rise to the level of cult classic for me. It’s convoluted and lacks focus, but there’s a good movie lurking in there somewhere. One thing that caught me off guard is how long it takes to actually get to the undead part of the story. Early on, it concerns itself more with the teen drama than it does with the horror, which is really where it gets interesting. Then, once the cheerleaders die, it feels like all the teen girl bonding has already taken place, except for with Leena the resident witch. I would have liked to see them continue to bond and overcome internalized misogyny together, with the gay goths indoctrinating the cheerleaders in their ways and the cheerleaders teaching the gay goths that sometimes being popular and athletic is both hard work and has its perks, and that as girls they experience the same kinds of harassment and violence that male entitlement brings.

The good parts of this stlightly outweigh the rambling, though. There are some very funny lines peppered throughout. At the beginning, when Leena names her cat Madeline the only thing I could think was “Wow! That’s super gay.” And lo and behold, the movie did deliver the gay. (Also, it made me glad that I can pick up on the secretly-attracted-to-girls teen vibe after living through that awkward time. My experiences were not wasted!) I also appreciated the shallow aesthetic of this movie. It looks very Disney Channel Original at times while also delivering some real dark shit. The floating stones and the cemetery sign immediately come to mind. Who designed that sign? Do they work with Hot Topic as well as making small town graveyard signage? The way the bubblegum twenty teens look clashes with the gory violence really works for me.

For those interested in a very similar story but told in a less messy way, I highly recommend Lily Anderson’s 2018 book Undead Girl Gang. There’s popular girls resurrected, misfits bonding with them, and a murder mystery! I imagine this movie was influential on that book, but I do think it improves on a lot of the ideas in some very fun ways.

Boomer: I also come down on the “so okay, it’s average” non-side of the metaphorical fence on this one. When asked about my thoughts when recording our recent Monkey Shines podcast episode, I noted that I would give it one thumb up and one thumb down. Although I liked the concept and the way that it played around with it, there’s a definite muddledness to the narrative that, when combined with the Disney Channel Original Movie VFX, made the whole thing feel cheaper than the sum of its parts. Not that it looks cheap per se; normally, with a movie like this one where virtually the entire cast is unknown, you end up with something that looks like the kind of bargain bin, incorrectly lit, blurry student film that you can find streaming on Tubi (alongside 2001: A Space OdysseyTribulationThe Human Centipede 3, and The Color Purple, because Tubi is a lawless place). And because this was on Tubi, I don’t think that was an unfair assumption going in, especially when the film opens with the (thankfully unfulfilled) promise that we’re about to watch a found footage flick, complete with exactly the kind of overexposed footage that it’s common to find in movies from unseasoned filmmakers. The ability to chalk up poor editing, bad angles, out of focus footage, and inaudible dialogue to an error on the part of a character rather than the production crew has been a boon to neophyte moviemakers out there in the world, and although All Cheerleaders Die opens with a few of these hallmarks, it transitions to being a “real” film pretty quickly. 

But that’s also where some of the other issues come into play. For one thing, this cast of all white, mostly brunette girls caused some issues with telling the characters apart, especially early on. We watch Felisha Cooper’s Alexis die early on at the end of the “found footage” section, and we see that Mäddy (Caitlin Stasey) is clearly a different person. But then we meet Martha (Reanin Johannink) after that section, and it wasn’t until the football players showed up at the cheerleaders’ pool party did I realize that she and Mäddy were different people. There’s something a little strange and careless about the casting of actors who are all a little too similar. I’ve never been confused about which Mean Girl is which, or gotten Nancy and Bonnie confused in The Craft even though Fairuza Balk and Neve Campbell are both pale-skinned and raven-haired. It might be possible to get so high while watching Jawbreaker that when Rebecca Gayheart’s character reminisces about Liz Purr you have a moment where you ask yourself “Who’s that?”, but you’re never going to think that it’s Rose McGowan. That carelessness also seems to bleed over into an overabundance of names ending in a -y/-ie sound: Tracy, Lexy, Kaylee,  Mäddy, Cody, Moochie, and for some reason both a Terry and a Larry, who have no relation to one another. What’s up with that? When you’re watching Heathers, you know that they’re all named Heather (or Betty/Veronica Finn/Sawyer) on purpose, but here it once again just seems needlessly confusing, which is something that you want to avoid when making a movie with a pretty small audience in the first place. 

This certainly has a strong cinematic quality, but the sense you get overall is muddled by the whip-quick changes. First it seems like a found footage movie, but it’s not! It seems like Lexy will be an important character, and she is, but only as a motivating factor for other people’s actions! Why is Cody Saintgnue even in this movie? What is the purpose? There’s a very Jawbreakers-ness to the fact that the only non-evil straight male love interest in the movie is virtually irrelevant (I just watched that cinematic masterpiece again last month for perhaps the tenth time, and every single time I see it, the fact that Julie has a love interest at all gobsmacks me every time), but also, what is he doing here? In Heathers, for instance, the nerds have a Rosencrantzian purpose: to squirt milk out of their noses when a Heather looks at them, to be bullied by the jocks at Heather Chandler’s funeral and thus inspire Veronica and J.D. to target them, to provide chorus in the school. Here, they feel like they’re part of the movie because high school movies have stoners — full stop. So instead of a very tight, clean movie about high femme lesbian cheerleaders eating misogynists, we have a film that meanders around and has several really impressive sequences that turns into a DCOM version of Avengers: Infinity War at the end because Mäddy and her goth girlfriend have to stop the villain from collecting all of the infinity stones. The pool party scene, the beach scene, the car crash, the girls at school — all of it is very, very cool. I was immediately won over by the way that we cut straight from the expository found footage (that doesn’t really tell us much at all) to the very fun, frenetic cheerleading auditions. It managed to combine the campy peanut butter of all of those lacrosse scenes in the first season of Teen Wolf with the campy chocolate of the training montage in 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer set to “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” by The Divinyls into a perfect little Reese’s cup. But somewhere between there and the end, after thinking to myself for the first (and presumably last) time I really wish Brittany Snow was in this and also Wow, it’s really fucked up that the only black guy in this movie is our primary villain and he’s out here sexually assaulting a bunch of white girls both literally and symbolically, it ended up being a not-quite-camp-classic for me. 

Britnee: I’ve seen the cover of All Cheerleaders Die many times while perusing through the all the deliciously trashy flicks on Tubi, and nothing about it nor the short description sold me. I don’t really like zombie movies, so a low-budget zombie movie about a group of cheerleaders didn’t seem like something I would be into. I was surprised by how unique the supernatural elements were, though, and it at least wasn’t the annoying, basic zombie crap I expected.

There’s something about gay cheerleaders killing asshole men that really warms my heart. How is it that this is the only film I’ve come across with that plot? It’s wonderful! It does have a pretty slow start and doesn’t really speed up until midway, during the confrontation between the cheerleaders and football players in the woods. That’s when I really became invested, and to be honest, everything that happened prior didn’t really register with me. What really got me amped was the magical Wiccan stones. I didn’t understand how they worked or if they’re a real part of the Wiccan religion, but it thought it was fascinating. The way that the green stones attracted blood and made the blood lines look like slithering snakes was rad.

Would I watch this again? Sure, it was pretty fun, but I’m not quite sure if I see it as being a cult classic. Maybe I’ll change my mind a few years down the road after a couple more watches.

Lagniappe

Britnee: If I would have watched this as a 14-year-old mall goth, I would have been super into it. I don’t mean that as an insult at all! I just think that my interests and style at that time would have really drawn me to hunting down a DVD copy of this movie at all costs. It would be in my vampirefreaks.com bio at the very least. There was a nostalgic feeling that to it that made me cringe a little, and I think I somehow was tapping into embarrassing 14-year-old-Britnee memories. 

Alli: I definitely agree with Boomer about everyone looking extremely similar. I wasn’t confused the whole time, but with the super similar white girl names, it did get rough. I also noticed that the black guy was this super evil, violent, rapey villain, and it definitely rubbed me the wrong way. I do believe that he has a couple of non-white guys in his crew, but it was a very, uhhh, problematic casting choice.

Boomer: I will say that, for all that I’ve said about how I found myself wishing I was watching a movie with more well-known actors, part of this was based on what I perceived for most of the runtime as a particularly terrible performance by Tom Williamson, who portrayed the villainous Terry. He spent the first 90% of the film emoting absolutely nothing: there was no change in his features whether he was sizing up Maddy, looking down at the crash site in which she and the others were presumably killed, or while watching Vik walk up to a teacher in order to tell her about what happened the night before. Once he got his hands on the infinity stones, however, he turned into a big campy weirdo, so I guess we can chalk that up to a character choice for the sociopathic Terry. Brooke Butler’s performance as Tracy was inconsistent, but she was nonetheless very fun to watch, and lead Caitlin Stasey was so magnetic that when I recently caught an episode of the current (terrible) Fantasy Island on TV that she happened to be in, I watched the whole (terrible) thing; and for what it’s worth, cheers for ABC for having a queer lady romance where two women demonstrate what they want to do to each other erotically with a rose. We’ve come a long way, baby. Special kudos, though, goes to Amanda Grace Cooper, who played Hanna. I really enjoyed her performance as both Hanna and Martha-in-Hanna’s-body, and she was the standout for me. I will also say that, for me, the movie would have been 10% better if it had left out Maddy’s video diary entry about her revenge plot. Given how quickly she pivots to genuine fondness for the cheerleaders and the unnecessary forced third act conflict that results from the others discovering the video, I could have done without it. 

Brandon: The Swampflix Crew may not have been entirely convinced of All Cheerleaders Die‘s greatness, but you can at least tell Lucky McKee believed in its cult potential.  Not only does it abruptly end with a shameless tease for a never-made sequel, but it also started as a revision of McKee’s shot-on-video debut, years before he had “made it” as a haunted-household name.  The 2001 SOV version of All Cheerleaders Die is a rough-draft prototype that’s not quite as polished (duh) nor as gay (booo) as its big-budget “remake,” but it’s just as surprisingly successful given its limitations.  It’s no-budget backyard filmmaking at its most charming & upsetting, and it’s obvious how McKee convinced himself of its greater potential as a post-Heathers teen girl bodycount comedy.  I still don’t fully understand why he was wrong, but I’m at least glad y’all found things to enjoy about his second attempt.

Next month: Boomer presents Stepmonster (1993)

-The Swampflix Crew

Zillennial Warfare

Even though there’s a clear birth-year boundary between Millennials (born 1977-1995) and Gen Z (born 1996 – 2015), you’ll often hear them grouped together, usually in complaints by older generations who are becoming increasingly out-of-touch and out-of-time.  When a Boomer complains that food service is slow because “Millennials” are lazy and “No one wants to work anymore”, what they really mean is that restaurants are under-staffed because Gen-Z is finally demanding better working conditions for themselves than the last few generations dared to.  To my eye, there are some major, vivid distinctions between Millennials—who are old enough to remember life before the internet but too hopelessly addicted to ever leave it—and Zoomers, who are already pushing for a kinder, more authentic post-internet world.  It’s not yet as clearly defined as the boundary between the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps individualism of Boomers and the checked-out apathy of Gen-X, though, mostly because younger generations have not yet had the advantage of guiding public discourse through decades of pop media.  That setback is changing as Millennials & Zoomers are getting old enough to have real Big Boy jobs in Hollywood & NYC, but the change has been gradual.  I was thinking a lot about that deficiency in proper assessments of Millennial Brain and Gen-Z Culture this past week, though, when I happened to see two thrillers that addressed those exact topics while sharing the same marquee. 

Emily the Criminal could not have been better timed to coincide with national headlines & online Culture War arguments over Millennial “entitlement” & debt.  Just as the Biden administration #triggered Boomers online by announcing concrete plans to (partially) forgive student loan debt, the financial-desperation thriller hit local theaters with a plot hinged on that exact conflict.  Aubrey Plaza stars as a food service worker who’s drowning in $70k of student loan debt from art school, something she cannot seem to make progress on thanks to low service industry wages and predatory interest rates.  So, she gets mixed up in increasingly risky credit card fraud schemes and subsequent bouts of hyperviolence.  The film is a little too subdued & old-fashioned for its own good, decades behind the times in its tone & style. In a way, though, it’s smart for a thriller about The Millennial Condition to echo the low-level crime thrillers Millennials grew up on in the VHS era.  For most of the runtime, Plaza’s student loan debt is an arbitrary excuse for a by-the-books, in-over-her-head thriller.  The generational culture wars only really come into play in a pivotal third-act scene where she finally lands an interview for a “real” job, only to discover during the interview that she’s applying for a full-time, unpaid internship.  She genuinely cannot afford to work, so she has to steal.  The Gen-Xer interviewer calls her spoiled for turning down the “opportunity” & “exposure” she’d receive for her unpaid labor, mirroring the exact arguments about Millennial entitlement that were raging online while the film was in the theater.  In its filmmaking sensibilities, Emily the Criminal feels distinctly behind the times, but it could not be timelier in its themes of generational debt & desperation.

The generational commentary is much more pronounced in the Gen-Z satire Bodies Bodies Bodies.  It’s not contained to a single scene; it’s the entirety of the text.  Bodies Bodies Bodies is an ensemble-cast murder mystery in which a Florida mansion full of mean, coked up, trust fund Zoomers violently #cancel each other during a good, old-fashioned hurricane party.  It literalizes & escalates online mob mentality in a chaotic, real-world environment where morality-police dogpiling has lethal consequences.  If Emily the Criminal supposes that the #1 threat to Millennial prosperity is exponential debt, Bodies Bodies Bodies supposes that Gen-Z’s biggest enemy is the generational impulse to turn on each other at the slightest political misstep.  Social media buzzwords like “toxic,” “triggering,” and “silencing” are wielded like weapons . . . along with the actual weapons they use to bash each other’s skulls in during their paranoid search for a killer.  As a satirical assessment of a generational zeitgeist, I’m not convinced that Bodies Bodies Bodies has Gen-Z entirely pinned down.  If anything, it’s mostly older generations who are terminally online at this point, as younger Zoomers tend to be lightening up & logging off out of boredom with most social media platforms.  If the generational commentary is at all convincing here, it’s in showing what a vicious, un-fun internet culture we’ve set up for these kids, who now only really check in for make-up tips, line-dances, and absurdist recipes.  Luckily, the movie also works as class commentary on the selfishness & cruelty of the wealthy, a topic that’s evergreen.  It also satisfies as a murder mystery, a rare example of the genre where the reveal is just as compelling as the tension leading up to it.

I don’t know that either of these movies are especially exceptional on their own terms.  My biggest takeaway from either was just continued appreciation of actors I already loved going in: Plaza in Emily and Shiva Baby‘s Rachel Sennott in Bodies, both of them stars.  As a pair, though, the movies were an interesting glimpse into how Hollywood perceives the differences between Millennials & Zoomers.  Millennials are now old enough to have their problems taken (a little too) seriously, while Zoomers are still at an age where they can only be assessed in comedic caricature.  That difference makes Bodies Bodies Bodies both the more fun and the less accurate of the pair. Gen-Z will eventually get their own grim, generation-defining dramas in due time, though, once Hollywood starts mocking whatever doomed generation follows them. It’s the circle of strife.

-Brandon Ledet

There’s Plenty Crying in Baseball

In case you haven’t already heard this 1,000 times in the past few weeks, the new TV series A League of Their Own is very good and very, very gay.  It’s so good & gay, in fact, that it prompted 95-year-old retired baseball player Maybell Blair, the inspiration behind the show, to publicly come out of the closet for the first time.  Less significantly, it also prompted me to finally give the original 1992 Penny Marshall film it was adapted from a shot, after decades of avoidance.  That was also pretty good!  Both versions of A League of Their Own are winning, heartwarming portraits of complicated women who unite over a shared love of baseball; and in one of the versions, they sometimes make out.  In a recent podcast interview, Rosie O’Donnell vented frustrations that Marshall limited how much of the lesbian undercurrent could breach the surface of the original film, so in a way the new, queer-affirming TV show registers as a more comfortable, authentic version of the story they both telling.  Still, the 1992 original is just as much a rousing celebration of American women, one that just happens to be set on a baseball field.

The women in the original A League of Their Own are uniformly wonderful across the board, from the always-respected, regal screen presence of Geena Davis to the rarely-respected movie star machinations of Madonna.  They’re all great.  So, even though it’s miles beside the point in a movie that’s main objective is to celebrate women, I feel compelled to single out the only man in the main cast: the team’s disgraced alcoholic head coach, played by Tom Hanks.  It’s rare that I ever want to talk about Tom Hanks.  He seems like he’d be pleasant enough to be around in real life, but I don’t really care about his craft as a performer.  It’s been decades since Hanks would regularly make interesting choices in career outliers like Joe vs. The Volcano and The Burbs, and even then he was still playing an affable everyman in outlandish scenarios.  There was something thrilling about seeing professional nice guy Tom Hanks play a disgusting asshole for a change in A League of Their Own.  He’s a sloppy drunk misogynist drowning in his own liquor sweats, barely perking up enough from his mid-day blackouts to spit his chewing tobacco sludge onto the field instead of his shirt.  Hanks is vile in this film, which makes him a great foil (and reluctant collaborator) for the women on his team.  It also makes this one of his most interesting performances, by default.

I guess the question that’s nagging me is whether Tom Hanks is a good actor.  His performances as grotesque, sweaty mutants in A League of Their Own and the recent Elvis biopic are a fascinating contrast to his usual persona as America’s sweetheart uncle.  I can’t say either performance is particularly good, though.  His portrayal of Elvis’s overly controlling manager Col Tom Parker is more of an SNL accent & boardwalk caricature than a sincere performance . . . which is fine, except that it never feels purposeful or controlled.  Likewise, his tough-guy dipshit persona in A League of Their Own rings insincere & hollow in contrast to the rest of the cast.  It works in the context of the movie, where a powerful, defiant Geena Davis walks all over him as the self-appointed assistant coach who makes up for his shortcomings (backwards, in heels, etc.).  At the same time, though, it points to Hanks’s limitations as a performer.  Normally, I’d celebrate Hollywood celebrities getting cast against type, but the few times I’ve seen Hanks play villain it’s only helped illustrate how much better he is as a cookie-cutter Nice Guy™.  And even in that context, I only mean “better” in the sense that his performances are unnoticeable.  I’m most comfortable with not thinking about Tom Hanks at all, so when he colors outside the lines with fat-suit prosthetics, misogynist rants, and improv-night accents I really hate having to think about whether he’s a talented actor.  He seems like a nice guy and all, but seeming like a nice guy might be his only real talent.

I’m likely just looking for something to be a hater about here.  After recently enjoying this & the eerie ghost story Field of Dreams, I appear to be getting over my total disinterest in baseball as a subject. I need a new target to lash out at, and this widely beloved millionaire can surely take the hit.  A League of Their Own is great, and it uses Tom Hanks well, but his performance isn’t up to par with the rest of the cast.  Even Jon Lovitz is a more compelling misogynist asshole in his few minutes of screentime in the prologue, proving that going gross & going broad isn’t where Hanks goes wrong.  He’s just not that great of an actor, even if he is a great guy.

-Brandon Ledet